Student bikers race to build schools in Uganda

by / Features, Front (1) in Features /

So much for the T.A.M. Last week, Middlebury cyclists spent their workouts biking to Uganda!

Not literally, of course. Proctor Terrace played host to several exercise bikes last week as part of the campus-wide Bike to Uganda fundraiser.

Hosted by Middlebury’s chapter of Building Tomorrow (BT), a nonprofit focused on building schools in Africa, the event challenged Middlebury students to collectively bike the roughly 7,000 miles from Vermont to Uganda.

Not even five years old, BT got its start in 2005 when founder George Srour, at the time a recent graduate from the College of William and Mary, started the organization in an empty room in his parents’ house.

To date the nonprofit has built four schools in Uganda and provided classroom space for 1,250 underprivileged children. Over 20 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and Canada boast chapters of Building Tomorrow.

The Middlebury community has Jessi Stevens ’12 to thank for BT’s presence on campus. A native of Indianapolis (where BT has its headquarters), Stevens started Middlebury’s chapter last spring after a high school coach recommended her to the organization. Since then, the club has raised over $2,500 for BT and run two major events: Bike for Tomorrow and last fall’s Brick by Brick campaign.

Stevens credits the nonprofit’s dignity and transparency as an organization for her dedication to Building Tomorrow.

“I think that service should be a partnership and that respect — equal respect — should be held on the sides of giver and recipient,” she said.

“I think that you should realize that both sides of this relationship have equal amounts to give. Building Tomorrow literally does that.”

Stevens is referring to BT’s unique relationship with the communities it serves. Entirely focused on meeting Uganda’s needs as defined by Uganda, BT enters only communities that actively request and are in need of a school.

“It’s not a bunch of Americans coming in, describing what we think Uganda needs and then subsequently giving it to them,” Stevens said.

Quite the contrary — the Ugandan community takes the lead in almost every stage of the process. Besides seeking the funds from Building Tomorrow, they volunteer their time to actually construct each school.

The BT academies are staffed by Ugandan citizens paid by the Ugandan Ministry of Education, which partners with Building Tomorrow.

“Our goal is to build a school by the end of four years,” Stevens said. She believes that as Middlebury’s chapter continues to grow, raising the $45,000 will become a feasible goal.

Contributing to the Middlebury chapter’s efforts is BT’s simple donation system. With its operational costs covered entirely by private donations and grants, BT can send all money raised by individual chapters directly to Uganda.

“It’s really efficient,” explained Sarah King ’12, a member of the Middlebury chapter.

“Giving a small donation makes an impact.”

She cited the Brick by Brick campaign as an example, in which a mere $5 donation purchased nine pounds of bricks in Uganda.

Middlebury’s money is well spent. Roughly 41 million children in sub-Saharan Africa live each day without access to public education. This crisis is especially problematic in Uganda, where over half the population is under the age of 15. This makes Uganda the youngest country in the world.

“It’s important for schools like Middlebury to realize that they can do really small things to [affect] people in different parts of the world who don’t have access to education like we do,” said King, describing her enthusiasm for Building Tomorrow.

Each BT school provides the Ugandan community with seven classrooms, a headmaster’s office, a library, toilets and a soccer field. A single BT academy serves 325 Ugandan children. Not bad for a country where barely half of all youth are able to complete primary school.

As they look toward the future, Middlebury’s Building

Tomorrow intends to make Bike to Uganda and Brick by Brick annual events.

In addition, the group is planning a newsletter campaign for the near future and next year hope to expand their fundraising into the greater Middlebury community, focusing particularly on the school communities.

While Middlebury didn’t quite make it all the way to Uganda, teams of cyclists collectively covered 3,700 miles, enough to reach the African coast. The members of team Steven Glansburg can enjoy their bragging rights as the group that biked the greatest distance, while 2 Live Crew came in second. Middlebury’s Building Tomorrow hopes that next year, as the organization grows, it’ll make it all the way to Uganda. Until then, the chapter can enjoy the success of its Bike to Uganda fundraiser, which succeeded in part due to the sheer simplicity of its design.

“That’s the draw of it — that it’s convenient,” said Christina Fox ’13.5 and Kari Nielsen ’13.5 as they biked their way through a late afternoon work-out.

Middlebury students have finally mastered multitasking. Now even their workouts are committed to social justice.